|1114 AD Ceann-Coradh, near Cill Dalua, Hibernia
“I cannot do what you ask, my chief.” Maelan kept his back stiff and his gaze forward. He couldn't bring himself to look Diarmait Ua Briain in the eye, not after the command he'd just been given. Not only did it leave a bitter taste in Maelan’s mouth, but such an act would break his code of honor as a Christian.
The chieftain stopped mid-stride. “What did you say, Maelan?”
Concentrating on the wall tapestry in the large royal chamber, Maelan remained still. “I said I cannot kill Murtough Ua Briain.”
Diarmait growled and spun, his thin frame hidden by the enormous multi-colored cloak he loved wearing. His face darkened, and he picked up a metal platter. The remains of his meal dropped to the floor as he flung the platter against the wooden walls. The harsh clang made Maelan flinch, and he did not flinch easily.
He stepped so close to Maelan their noses almost touched. Maelan could smell mead and onions on his breath. “How many winters have you been a warrior, Maelan?”
“Almost fifty winters, my chief.”
Diarmait cocked his head and raised his eyebrows. “In fifty winters’ time, you never killed anyone?”
“Of course. A warrior kills many enemies, my chief.”
“Yet you refuse to kill my enemy now.”
“You haven’t asked me to kill an enemy. You’ve asked me to kill your own brother. You do not ask for an honorable killing. You ask for a kin assassination, my chief.”
Diarmait threw his hands in the air. “Stop saying ‘my chief’ every other word, Maelan! By the power of the sun and the moon, we’ve known each other too long for such formalities. I don’t understand your reluctance. The man is a warrior just as you are. Why would you scruple to kill another warrior?”
“A warrior in battle is honorable. A helpless kinsman on his sickbed is murder.”
He spun, pacing several times as he spoke. “You and your stupid Christian morals. Why are you so blind to necessity, Maelan? When he recovers, he’ll take the túath from me again. You’ll be just as dispossessed as I if that happens.”
Maelan could think of nothing to say. Either he argued with Diarmait or betrayed his beliefs. He chose neither option.
Chief Diarmait closed his eyes and let out a weary sigh. “Time was you would do as your chief commanded, Maelan. When did you change?”
Maelan clenched his teeth against the memory of that battle —a day which still haunted him.
Diarmait crossed his arms and frowned. “Sometimes I just don’t understand you, Maelan. You are my warchief, my best warrior and one of my oldest friends. You’ve stood by me through war, raids, and celebrations. Your wife, may she rest in the Summer Lands, was my own dear cousin.”
“That is all true, my chief. Nothing changed.”
“Yet you won’t kill for me.”
Maelan swallowed. “I cannot justify such an act to my God. Such an act is dishonorable.”
“Dishonorable? How in the name of all things holy is killing dishonorable? Battle is an ancient tradition for all Gaels.”
“Not for Christians, my chief. I mean, Diarmait.”
Diarmait growled. “Codswallop! A bunch of stammering weaklings. You and my brother both love them for some unknown reason. Go, Maelan. Leave me now. Do send me someone with the skills I need. You must have one warrior in your command unweakened by your Christian morals.”
“Yes, my… yes, Diarmait.”
Maelan almost smiled, but restrained himself.
Once he safely escaped the royal rooms, he breathed a sigh of relief. It didn’t really matter who he sent in his stead. No one else would have his own advantage. Murtough Ua Briain, his own chief’s brother and rival for the Chiefdom of an Mhumhain, would live another day—unless his illness took him.
Maelan had a good group of warriors under him, with various skills and specialties. Maelan could be an excellent assassin, thanks to his magical talent, but he’d never use his magic for such a task.
As Diarmait had pointed out, not every Gaelic warrior believed secret killing was dishonest. In Gaelic culture, killing became a logical part of the constant warfare between tribes and clans. Maelan was raised, however, in a strict Christian household. His grandfather had been a priest, and such sins are unforgivable.
His chief still cleaved onto most of his pagan Gaelic beliefs, though Diarmait certainly gave lip service to the Christian God and their priests. He could hardly do less these days, with the amount of sheer power the Church now held. Many winters ago, perhaps in his great-grandfather’s time, more pagans lived, but they’d been hunted and destroyed with alarming violence. Violence wasn’t common on their own island, but crucifixions, even burnings, were not unheard of in other lands.
The violence. Despite being a warrior all his life, Maelan detested and regretted unnecessary violence. Some of his memories…
Maelan found his own room and closed the door, thankful to be out of sight. He removed his simple brat from around his shoulders and sat at the simple wooden desk.
He had work to do. The supply lists were still unfinished, and he needed to assign mentors to the new trainees. Some of those boys were barely grown. One only counted seven winters. Certainly, training a warrior young helped get them used to the feel of a spear in their hands, but seven?
Maelan’s own training had officially started at age twelve. He’d had fighter practice since he aged ten winters. He fostered to his mother’s brother, a warrior in Corcaigh, after age ten. He’d been so proud of his wooden practice sword and leather helm. He smiled at the memory, but frowned as he remembered his grandmother. She’d left the winter before his fostering, disappearing in the night. He’d only found her once, many winters later.
When he turned thirty, she’d sought him out, though he’d believed her long dead. She’d gifted him with a family heirloom, passed down for generations untold. He still held his brooch, a magical artifact which granted him the ability to stay hidden in plain sight.
He wished she’d had a similar talent. Instead, her talent almost got her killed. Did she still live somewhere? Had she managed to reinvent herself? He hoped so. He suspected, however, after she relinquished the brooch, her talent of eternal youth had faded.
After swallowing hard and chiding himself for useless nostalgia, Maelan bent to the task of finishing his work for the day.